Memories of Michael Harrington

Harrington speaking at a DSOC event (Gretchen Donart)

We continue our recognition of Michael Harrington’s contributions with recollections from several of our comrades who worked with him.

By Jack Clark

A mistake I'm glad I made led directly to my getting to know Mike Harrington well.

In 1969, I joined the University of Massachusetts chapter of the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL), the youth group of the Socialist Party (SP) which Mike chaired. YPSL opposed the self-defeating antics of some elements of the student left. My mistake consisted in thinking that YPSL shared basic goals of the student left, such as ending the war in Vietnam. Soon enough I was caught up in a faction fight within YPSL and the SP over the war and a range of related issues. Mike was the leader of our faction, the Coalition Caucus in the SP. By late 1972 I had moved to New York City to become organizer for the Coalition Caucus. I threw myself into the Labor for McGovern campaign, organized other young socialists to join picket lines for UFW boycotts and organized to maximize our caucus’s strength at the Dec. 1972 SP convention.

The 1972 SP convention was a debacle. The majority voted down a motion to condemn Nixon's terror bombing of North Vietnam, which was happening as we met. Social Democrats USA became the new name of the organization. Mike conducted himself with dignity through several days of vicious attacks on not only his politics but on his character. Despite urgings from many followers, Mike refused to walk out. Months later he resigned, and nearly a year later we founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee as a new group, not a split from the old SP. That fresh start made all the difference.

Over a seven-year period I worked full time for the movement. In retrospect, I never worked harder, and I never learned so much. I saw Mike's great skill at bringing people together. In the midst of an escalating political discussion in our leadership committees, Mike would define an emerging consensus. We'd joke about his seeing harmony in conflict, but he was genuinely skilled in finding common ground.

Finding common ground in larger politics also animated Mike. He worked tirelessly to bring our little group into closer alignment with what he saw as a potential majority coalition in American politics. As the Congressional Black Caucus was forming its agenda, Mike was writing about full employment policy and cementing alliances with Gus Hawkins and John Conyers. Appealing to historic ties to the socialist tradition, Mike built links to the UAW, AFSCME and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. When Bill Winpisinger emerged as leader of the Machinists union and self-identified as a "seat-of-the-pants socialist," Mike Harrington and DSOC were the natural place to turn. Bill Lucy of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Joyce Miller of the Coalition of Labor Union Women identified with DSOC because of Mike.

Unlike our erstwhile comrades in SDUSA, Mike never dismissed change agents from outside the House of Labor. For a Debs Dinner honoring a major UAW leader, Gloria Steinem gave the keynote speech. Links between building trades workers and environmentalists were forged in local DSOC full employment coalitions. Organizing students to build a new generation for social change was always a priority; Mike spoke at all the youth conferences. Mike made time to attend meetings of the emerging Hispanic Commission within DSOC, and committed atheist that he was, he engaged respectfully with the Commission on Religion and Socialism.

If he lived to celebrate this birthday, Mike would have been 87. That's not exceptionally old for someone of his generation. As it is, we lost him at age 61. He left us his writing, some records of his powerful speeches and the legacy of an American socialism rooted in the struggles of our fellow citizens to improve their lives today and tomorrow. We mourn him still, and we live to build on his legacy.

Jack Clark served as national secretary of DSOC from 1973-79.  He has also been chair of the New York City local of DSOC and Boston local of DSA.

By Penny Schantz

I met Mike Harrington at Queens College in 1976. As a 17-year-old freshman, I had the chutzpah to ask the famous professor to let me take his graduate seminar “The Politics of the Labor Movement.” He let me in, I did well and Mike became my advocate. He helped me get into Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations program and his reference landed me a summer internship at UAW Local 259 led by DSOCer Sam Meyers. The intellectual foundation laid by Mike’s seminar and the practical experience of working with Sam ingrained in me a deep conviction: being a socialist makes me a better trade unionist.

I became active in DSOC’s Youth Section in its early years. Determined not to repeat mistakes he made in the 1960s, Mike was supportive of the Youth Section and prioritized speaking on campuses. He exhibited an almost saintly patience with hecklers from the sectarian left. As youth organizer, I was often on the road with Mike. Listening to his countless speeches taught me public speaking by osmosis. Mike’s flair for storytelling made a delightful treat for staffers, gathered in the office to hear the highlights of his recent travels.

For years afterwards, Mike met me at a Flushing diner when I visited NY. Sipping a vanilla milkshake in the later years of his illness, he continued to provide encouragement, nurturing and wise counsel. I wish he knew how much he later inspired my international work based in his beloved Paris.

Penny Schantz is the former AFL-CIO International Representative and DSA youth organizer.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 45 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 14 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 9 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.


Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 8 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion.